This past week – for the first time ever – I patronized Amtrak, the socialized train system. Amtrak is one of those publicly-operated “firms” that past many people’s radar because they think it’s privately owned and operated. (In fact, someone once argued with me that it had to be a private corporation because it was such a lousy system and the federal government could surely do better!) Riding it was a good experience for me because it not only secured my own views against it but it also let me experience the ride with those who rely on it everyday.
Where I’m from, fewer people take public transit than those on the east coast, who seem to treat it like a form of life support. That’s understandable considering the close proximity of locations, the older cities that can’t accommodate multilane highways and parking lots, and the cultural expectations of the public. Out here in the west coast, where land was once cheap and (still is) plentiful, traffic and parking lots accompanied development. Where I live, this tends to produce two types of people: those who see public transit as a completely worthless enterprise and those who bemoan the fact that an efficient public system is impossible given the current suburban lifestyle.
As I mentioned, riding Amtrak and the Metro while in DC this past week helped me realize that merely unplugging the government funds from public transportation systems and letting them collapse – a position that I’d held for years – was completely unrealistic. These people can’t just switch to cars. Until a workable plan for private mass transportation appears, public trains and subway systems will have strong support, regardless what any of us who avoid urban life try to do about it.